Corbyn: a conservative response to the neoliberal crisis?

‘This is hardly revolutionary,’ said John McDonnell, as he summarised what a Corbyn administration might look like at a recent Momentum rally. Student debt reduction, social housing, rent controls, dignity at work (with anti-trade-union legislation repealed) and ending the privatisation of the NHS. If this stuff is deemed to be radical, the question is: just how far have we fallen?

Even by the turn of the ’90s, student debt (as we currently understand it) did not exist. The main battle with Thatcher at the time was over the size of the student grant, and the fact that certain welfare benefits were starting to be restricted. Sure, council housing was being sold off and not replaced (as rent controls were abolished), yet even as trade unions were clamped down on, all manner of battles were fought on the industrial field. As for the NHS, the Tories boasted that the ‘NHS is safe with us’ and that record funding was being ploughed in to it. In other words, the Thatcher administration was merely laying the foundations for a revolution that was to be continued and embedded by every subsequent government. But if Thatcherism was a conservative (radical) attempt to resolve the crisis of the 70s (the end of the so called post-war consensus), might not Corbyn be seen as radical (conservative) attempt to reconstitute society by retrieving many of the things lost, yet that still live in the minds of many?

There are two main reactions to the crisis in neoliberalism outside of what can be called the political mainstream: Corbynism and ‘kipperism’ (the broad appeal of UKIP). In order for Corbyn to be electorally successful, the rising tide of ‘kipperism’ amongst the working class in Labour’s traditional heartlands must be stemmed. This must involve a realistic assessment as to the nature of the elephant-in-the-room: immigration and perception of non-integrated communities. A blasé liberal internationalism whilst shouting ‘refugees welcome here’ with the implicit implication that any objections are merely ‘racist’ will not suffice. Indeed, it was this type of contemptuous attitude which fuelled the Brexit vote. From our own perspective, we must show empathy and understanding towards attitudes we intuitively withdraw from. The concerns echoed in the Brexit vote were longstanding and deep rooted in social despair and alienation. So if part of Corbyn’s plan to end austerity shores up the labour market, this in itself may undermine certain employment practices associated with the ‘mass migration’ from the EU and other places. In other words, deal with the problem from the demand rather than supply side, putting the responsibility for good employment conditions onto employers and away from migrants. Hopefully this will undermine the traction the ‘kipper narrative’ has amongst many vulnerable elements in our society.

Going into the rally, someone proffered that Corbyn could not win a general election because of Labour’s 1983 defeat on a similar left platform. However, this was a different time and Labour were seen (rightly or wrongly) as offering a return to the bad old days of the 70s, and Thatcher’s universal acid had not finished its revolutionary renewal. But now we have now come full circle. The neoliberal experiment has long since run aground and we are living with the consequences. This is one thing that ‘Corbynistas’ and ‘kippers’ (even if many elements of Ukip don’t) agree on. But simply returning to the old ways will not suffice. Momentum talks of a ‘new kind of politics’, which must mean, for example, that a nationalised railway service does not repeat the kind of mistakes which made the case for its privatisation unassailable in the Thatcher period.

The vision of an outward looking, inclusive multi-cultural society is in danger of being lost. It is Corbyn’s job to continue and renew this one aspect of the neoliberal worldview (intended or otherwise) that we actually like and value. The consequences of a socio-cultural victory of ‘kipperism’ are too dire to contemplate.

Brexit? No thanks! Better the Devil you know

That there is a lot wrong with the European Union is not in doubt. It has morphed into a lumbering, hubristic leviathan before our very eyes, often displaying the kind of staggering incompetence, not to mention cruelty and abuse of power, associated with empires that have grown too quickly; losing touch not only with reality, but most importantly with its people, as it shambles along in a delusive bubble of its own creation. But it was not always like this.

A potted history of the EU

Back in the eighties, it was a no-brainer that Britain should be a part of the nascent European project. That the Labour Party dared to advocate withdrawal from the EEC in its 1983 ‘suicide note’ was deemed to be further proof that Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives were the only competent party to be trusted with the economy. It is now often forgotten that it was Mrs Thatcher (later to succumb to Euroscepticism) who signed the Single Market Act in 1985 – giving us the free movement of capital and people, a neoliberal nirvana. Only a few years later John Major followed up with the Maastricht treaty, which drew out some of the political implications of the ongoing process of the union of European nations, and then took us into what turned into the disaster of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The ever-expanding EU project culminated in the creation of the single currency – something now widely credited with much of Europe’s economic woes. Euroscepticism grew in tandem with the expansion. The European project was growing too fast, said the sceptics, and Britain risked losing what was left of its sovereignty – we were sleepwalking into a ‘superstate’. Even from the very start of the creation of the EU, the Tories had had their naysayers – its right-wingers, who cloaked their ideological objections in an economic rationale. This struck a chord with their doubles on the left who were doing the same thing. These ideologues patiently bided their time as, over the decades, the fantastic success of what is now called the EU slipped into its opposite – vindication of the naysayers’ warnings, at least in their eyes.

Britain was always something of a reluctant partner in this project. It wanted to have its cake and eat it too. After the decline and fall of its empire, Britain was caught following the second world war between the rise of the new superpower, the USA, and the formation of the European power bloc. The former imperial power naturally wanted to retain power and influence in a changing world – but what compromises should it make with rising greater powers, and with which ones? Straightaway we see that worries about the loss of ‘sovereignty’, voiced by the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, is at least situated by history. But if it was all as simple as they like to make out, why did Johnson only convert to Brexit after David Cameron’s apparent failure to secure suitable reforms? It’s not as if those reforms were ever going to deliver the kind of sovereignty wished for. Brexiteers argue that, with full sovereignty restored, Britain would be free to do trade deals with all four corners of the globe, but what sort of trade deals would the likes of Johnson and Farage sign us up to? Presumably, ones without the socio-economic protections of the EU – arguably good for businesses, or at least for some of them, but what kind of boon for democracy and ‘sovereignty’ would it represent for the mass of the population? One that is hard to discern, we would wager.

It’s not the economy, stupid

You can argue the toss about the economic trade-offs. As far as it is possible to tell, the boring reality is that the purely economic costs or benefits will probably be marginal either way. The whole question is more a political one. As Paul Mason points out, there are good arguments for wanting to exit the EU, but that doesn’t mean you should actually vote for Brexit. Why? Two words: Boris Johnson. Vote Brexit, get a resurgent Tory right, which will dominate the next period of British politics, and which will use the referendum win as a mandate to pursue ever more extreme Thatcherite polices. It is all very well voting to ‘get your country back’, but you won’t get it back – you’re handing it to the Tory right.

There’s a small ‘c’ conservative argument for staying, too, in that we are gambling with uncertain and potentially big upheavals for at best marginal economic gains. The terms of the withdrawal that Britain will win from the EU are by no means clear at this stage, but could conceivably be punitive – the EU will want to discourage other countries with similar ideas. Britain will want a continuing relationship with Europe, particularly access to the single market – and Europe will to an extent surely want that too. Britain is still one of the biggest and richest economies in the world. But given Britain’s current (at least apparent) hostility to migration and regulation and other conditions imposed by Brussels, how will this be achieved? The devil will of course be in the detail. But this is the real point. Brexiteers are pursuing an ideological agenda, the implications and real consequences of which they cannot be sure of. They are dangerous radicals, not conservatives. They want the benefits of EU membership without the costs. They are not really conservatives at all but have a petit–bourgeois spiv mentality.

Don’t let’s divorce or kick out the kids, let’s talk

Let’s return to the sovereignty question, as this would seem to be something of a trump card for Brexiteers of left and right. It can be seen for the myth it is with an analogy. When an individual decides to get married, they cede a large portion of their personal sovereignty with another person who is doing likewise. Both parties pool sovereignty: what they lose in one aspect, they gain in another. This is only apparently a loss, from a limited and selfish point of view. Actually, the apparent loss is a real gain: both individuals are strengthened by the partnership – the ‘individual’ has been transformed into a higher synthesis. At this point, it would be stupid and counterproductive to continue to insist on your individual rights. All that would do would be to threaten the higher synthesis. You’ll end up back on your own again, back where you started, having gained nothing. As The Economist likes to point out, full sovereignty is not obviously something to be wished for. Nowhere on earth is more sovereign and independent than North Korea.

What would we want this much-prized sovereignty for? The Brexiteers top trump, at least when it comes to connecting with a disaffected populace, is: to control our borders. The UK has entered an arrangement which nominally cedes border control for the right of access to other countries. The Brexiteers’ big beef is that more people in the other countries appear to have taken advantage of this to come here than people in the UK have to go there. This is a partial and hence misleading truth. What has really been happening is that the UK economy has been sucking in some of the most able workers from other EU countries and exploiting them in our more-flexible and hence cheaper labour markets. This has been made possible because of the near collapse of the ‘wage’ following 30 years of Thatcherism. Many indigenous Brits cannot afford to live on the wage a job offers without relying on a relatively generous (soon to be taken away) system of benefits. That this has been a boon to UK business (if not to its workers) is not in doubt. The UK has expanded its economy by raiding poorer countries’ labour forces, at the expense of our own, whilst at the same time having the chutzpah to claim that these very same people are clogging up our hospitals and social services – institutions that are, ironically, most often built and staffed by those very same immigrants.

Increased migration was an inevitable consequence of neoliberalism. This is the economy Thatcher and her successors built – a globalised, neoliberal, free-market utopia – and it explains why large sections of the business community still support EU membership, albeit through gritted teeth. But rather than accepting this reality, the likes of Johnson and Farage want to go a step further. For them, the EU stands in opposition to the kind of neoliberalism they want to see. When they bemoan the EU’s ‘regulations’ and ‘red tape’ what they are tacitly acknowledging are the remains of the social democratic settlement that followed in the wake of the second world war. This settlement was a compromise that recognised the rights of ordinary working people to such things as health, education, housing and a decent wage, if in return working people would recognise the rights of businesses to ply their trade in search of profits. This compromise, now thinned out, still underpins the Single Market, and the likes of Farage and Johnson want to get rid of what remains. The rest of the ‘red tape’ constitutes the legal framework required to underpin any free trading agreement – costs big businesses are happy to take on, but which can be an intolerable burden to smaller ones (a reason in itself why big businesses are happy to take them on). So when the Brexiteers light a bonfire under EU red tape, we can assume that any new such arrangements they come up with will be just as bureaucratic and costly (if not more so, minus the social protections we currently enjoy). What kind of free-trading paradise would you expect when when a desperate UK led by the blonde opportunist starts renegotiating our trading position with the likes of Trump or authoritarian states such as China?

Bigger dreams

At least some of the Brexit people have bigger dreams. They believe that a referendum victory will lead to a series of referendums in other EU states, thereby destroying the EU leviathan by stealth and turning Europe into a group of free associating and freely trading democractic nations – a kind of anarcho-capitalism, in fact. This is almost certainly a dangerous illusion and makes Cameron’s overheated warnings about world war seem all the more plausible. As the Remainers rhetorically point out, about the only foreign power praying for Brexit is Vladimir Putin – there’s nothing that would suit his geopolitical strategy more than the break-up of the power blocs currently frustrating his ambitions. This is not to say that there will be chaotic break up and war in the event of Brexit – but given the uncertainties, and the continent’s still recent history, conservative caution would seem sensible. There’s nothing very wrong with utopian dreaming, but beware the fanatics who are in a rush to impose their vision on a recalcitrant reality. Afghanistan and Iraq provide sobering lessons for those who are in a hurry to engage in utopian state-destruction and social engineering. The hope there was that ‘liberal democracy’ would spontaneously emerge from the rubble; what we actually saw was tribalism, sectarianism and corruption, to mention nothing worse, emerging in the power vacuum of these failed states. Utopian Brexiteers, whether of the free trading or socialist variety, should be careful what they wish for.

The EU does of course need to change, and the best way for progressive forces to help bring about democratic change is for Britain to remain a member. Being outside will leave us with no control over events occurring on our doorstep and will not return any meaningful sovereignty. Warnings from the likes of the Bank of England and the IMF should be heeded. The only likely result of a win for the Brexit campaign is a carnival of reaction in this country – and perhaps worse in the countries on our borders. That many people want to leave the EU is entirely understandable, however. The EU needs to wake up to the simple fact that its current course is unsustainable. Let’s hope the UK’s referendum goes the right way – for Remain – but that the EU learns a lesson from all the millions of ordinary people who are clamouring for the exits.

Politics for beginners

This talk* was originally entitled “Being political in a non-political era”, so given what has just happened to the Labour Party, it is probably a good idea that I agreed to change the title. However, this is not a pure Politics 101 type talk. Instead, after saying a few words about the nature of politics, how it is represented in the media, how we are all affected by it, and about the academic study of politics, I propose to give an illustration of how we can start the process of thinking critically and learning to navigate our way through the political world – and that means, the human world, our world. It is not my intention to convince you of any particular political point of view – rather to provide food for thought.

What is politics?

My guess is that if you ask most people what they understand by ‘politics’ you will get a variety of answers revolving around politicians, the House of Commons, elections, legislation, political parties, foreign relations and wars, and so on. And these are undoubtedly crucial aspects of what we call ‘politics’. But what such answers reveal is that, for most people, politics is ‘out there’ and has nothing much to do with them or their everyday lives. Indeed, this is how politics is most often represented to us. And yet, at the same time, although politics is not our “specialist subject”, we will be asked to vote, or someone will offer strong opinions in the pub, workplace or over the garden fence, as if we’re entitled to an opinion.

And what do we hear over that fence? More often than not, platitudes ingested and regurgitated without much thought from the mass media. You will sometimes hear some sense or evidence of careful thought, of course. But the observation brings me to my first controversial statement: political ‘common sense’ is invariably nonsense. If we think about it, this should come as no great surprise.

Political culture appears to be based upon a contradiction: on the one hand, we are feted by pollsters, and parties seek to connect with this thing called ‘public opinion’. After all, we live in a democracy – rule by the people. On the other hand, we also just as clearly seem to live in the age of the ‘expert’, and are effectively told (and sometimes we tell ourselves) that we are not politicians, and that we should defer to the experts for guidance.

My contention is that within the space where these contradictions clash lurks something called ‘ideology’, that that ideology masquerades as “common sense”, and it is precisely here where we are open to political manipulation. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that, with the help of critical thinking, we can turn the tables, and change the agenda. This should therefore be an area of deep concern to all citizens of a democracy.

If we define ideology roughly as the ideas that those in power want us to accept in the interests of their keeping power, then this leads me to my working definition of politics: power and its distribution in society. Associating power with politics is not controversial, but the social relations of power can be. If we take a brief and simplistic overview of the history of our society over the past few centuries, we will clearly see that power relations can change quite radically – from the divine right of Kings and Queens, and the power of the church, to parliament, and up to our modern day, where, in theory at least, we all hold the power – the revolutionary idea of universal suffrage. It is salutary to think that our society is actually based upon this extremely radical idea, and I would like you to hold on to this thought.

The academic study of politics

I have been involved in the academic study of politics, both as a student and teacher. Political science is a branch of the social sciences, which includes the likes of economics, sociology, anthropology, history and so on. All such disciplines are an attempt to investigate scientifically – or at least systematically and seriously – aspects of human life. Really, what all social science does is pose the question: what does it mean to be human? But if, as I suggested earlier, politics is concerned with power, you might see that there is a problem. Does not power and its distribution in society and the resulting ideologies affect our ability to investigate things objectively, scientifically?

Political theory is the study of ideologies (conservatism, socialism, liberalism, and so on) – it asks questions about the nature of political life, the relationship between the individual and society at large, the nature of the ‘state’ and its ideological underpinnings. An appreciation of such questions will affect how you see all the other questions – all the other branches of study. It will colour the lenses through which you see political reality. That is why political theory can be seen as primary for a genuine understanding of human life in all its aspects. If you have no appreciation of international relations, social history, or economics, then your understanding of what politics really is will be severely hampered. Without some grasp of political theory, one lacks any genuine frame of reference for understanding anything.

The icing and the cake

And that leads me back to how most people engage with politics. Even for those relatively highly motivated people that watch Newsnight or read a broadsheet – if this is all they are doing, and politics is a cake, all they are doing is nibbling the icing. The sponge will forever remain an untasted mystery. I am not saying one should not read quality newspapers, obviously, but they are no substitute for broader and deeper study. They are not a substitute for books or collective engagement.

What kind of things would a serious study look at? Many difficult issues, no doubt, but let’s start with just two. First, what does it even mean to say we live in a thing called ‘society’? You will perhaps remember that Mrs Thatcher herself raised this question, and famously answered it by asserting that the question was meaningless as there was no such thing as society. For those of us awake to present-day social realities at the bottom of the pile, perhaps now we are in a position to see the practical impact of her theoretical assumption and the intimate or dialectical relationship between theory and practice. Thatcher’s political theory defined her attitude to social questions and the action she took on them. In other words, political theory is not just abstract ideas. It can hurt you. Badly.

Second, how shall we be governed and on what terms? A democracy is a society based upon political equality. We are all equal before the law and we have one vote each. But at the same time there is social and economic inequality, which implies power structures in society, which democracy itself has not been able to fully bring to account. As good citizens, we must question how the people at the top got there, whether or not there is any validity to the process whereby they got there, and whether they should be allowed to continue in their roles or be made redundant.

Now we are really doing politics! When we engage with politics, ideology and theory in a critical way, then we are in a position to hold our political masters to account – as is demanded of us in any genuine democracy. The alternative is to uncritically and unconsciously accept the unexamined ideological framework and the power structure on which it rests. This turns on its head the old definition of politics as “the art of the possible” – because what is deemed “possible” is itself an ideological construction, not a matter of objective science. This is the importance of political theory: to help us see beyond what is obvious, beyond “common sense”, beyond ideology.

Ideological societies

This kind of analysis often surprises people who assume they are free of ideology. Most of us realise that Nazi Germany, the old Soviet Union, North Korea, or even those areas now controlled by ISIS are examples of ‘ideological’ societies, being based upon a prescriptive set of values and rules, where free thought is suppressed and submission to some kind of doctrine the norm. We often congratulate ourselves on having escaped this and for living in a ‘free society’.

One does not wish to be churlish – of course, we do live in a society that is remarkably free by historic standards. But such freedoms need to be guarded, nourished, and extended or surely they will wither away. As noted earlier, the freedoms we take for granted spring from a democratic culture which has been many decades in the making. In some respects, mainstream politics has been about expanding those freedoms, but in some cases it has been about restricting or reversing them. The overall context is political equality: one person, one vote. That we have a form of democracy is not in question. The issue is its content and quality – its depth.

The point is that, despite our society being based upon one of the most subversive ideas of all time – mass political democracy – arguments over social and economic democracy have still to be won – perhaps the best example of how ‘ideology’ still controls us and defines our options. In a sense (and only in a sense!), we have it harder than the North Koreans. We are already free – but what shall we do with our freedoms? Are we truly alert to the responsibilities – and grown up enough to take them on?

Demand the impossible

Perhaps, then, the ‘art of the possible’ is not so much about a wise acceptance and navigation of objective realities as it is an ideological defence of social iniquities. I want to subvert the idea that politics should be or is the ‘art of the possible’, and argue that it should, and can become the ‘art of the impossible’ instead. We must examine closely what we are constantly told is ‘unrealistic’. We have a perfect example of this with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, and I will finish my talk with this point about how ideology works.

Labour lost this year’s general election and then threw itself into a bruising leadership campaign. Jeremy Corbyn was persuaded to stand as the left candidate, and because he could barely even get the minimum number of nominations required, MPs who disapproved of him signed his papers so that at least the party could be seen to have a ‘full debate’. Some of these people later regretted helping him, when his campaign started taking off. So please note that what they wanted was the appearance of ‘democracy’ – a token. This way, their democratic credentials could remain intact, and the left could take a thumping and be reburied after its temporary exhumation.

In pursuit of the façade of democracy, the rules of the leadership election had been changed – the idea was precisely that this would neutralise the left, and disempower the trade unions. Imagine the shock and horror of the party establishment when thousands of outsiders decided to pay their £3 and declare for JC! Such temerity could not be tolerated, so the party establishment claimed they were being infiltrated by outside left groups. Although true, the numbers did not add up – the numbers in such groups are minuscule and people were joining to vote for JC in their tens of thousands. The establishment had opened Pandora’s Box and they were losing control. And all thanks to their own rules – their own political chicanery. This led some party figures to argue for the suspension of the election – just because they did not like what was happening, that the result was not going their way. Just consider that for a moment. For years such people had bemoaned the lack of participation in politics, and now, at last, their proclaimed dream was coming true. But the dream was after all a nightmare, because the people joining had the cheek of having their own ideas. Such hypocritical hubris, cant and humbug.

We all know what happened next, but notice this. The same people that told us that the election of JC was impossible were not only proved hopelessly wrong, they are now telling us his potential election as PM will equally be impossible because what he proposes is unrealistic, and the people won’t go for it anyway. Notice the language they continue to use. They speak of ‘realism’, ‘common sense’ and the need to be elected. Aside from the obvious objection – ‘what is the use in electing a Tory-lite Labour Party other than to save your personal careers?’ – they have this fixed idea about what is permanent, possible and acceptable. In other words, they lack any kind of historical analysis whatsoever – they do not understand that change is the only thing that history guarantees.

But what change is possible is actually down to us. We can only be effective in bringing about change if we are alert to ideological bullshit. This demands a better civic-democratic culture than the one we already have – a culture that values reading, study, participation. But maybe such a culture is now on the cards. Love or loathe him, JC and his nascent movement will surely contribute to this end–Dave

* This is based on a talk first given by Dave to environmental group Barkingside 21

What is “socialist consciousness”?

While Dave was giving his talk to the comrades, I was preparing the following piece for a pamphlet prepared for the party’s summer school – on the theme of “new perspectives on socialism”. I don’t know whether my perspective is really new, but I don’t think I’ve heard the view expressed in quite this way anywhere else.

My unstated assumption in the piece is that socialism is a secular religion, and that for every feature you can find in religious organisation, practice and belief, you can find a more or less exact counterpart in the socialist traditions. I mean this as both criticism and praise, for every aspect of religion itself has a dual character. There is the religion of dogmatism, blind faith, empty ritual, oppression, reaction, propagandism and plain stupidity. There is also the religion that is, as Marx put it, “the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification”.

As with religion, so with socialism (in all the meanings of that term). My idea for the following piece came when I began to wonder what the socialist counterpart was of the concept in the spiritual life variously known as Buddhanature, Big Mind, Zen mind, pu, Krishna consciousness, or Christ consciousness (and I’m sure many others – all rooted in meditation). I’m not entirely sure it has one. But it should do – and there’s an already-existing but somewhat empty concept waiting to do the job…

What is socialist consciousness?

“… socialist consciousness requires workers to experience ‘a process of
complete mental reconstruction. Years of thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour must be overcome . . . the whole ideology of capitalism will be rejected lock, stock and barrel.’ Images of The New Socialist Man come to mind – but socialists do need to think very carefully about this question of what it means to have achieved the necessary consciousness for social liberation.”–Steve Coleman, ‘Impossibilism’

The Socialist Party of Great Britain stands alone among socialists and Marxists in its peculiar insistence on the importance of “socialist consciousness”. Socialism, in this view, is impossible unless and until a majority of the world’s workers undergo a “process of mental reconstruction”. To put it another way, that the inner transformation of individuals is more important than, and logically prior to, any meaningful transformation in the structures and institutions of the outer world. This may be a peculiar point of view, but it is surely the right one. An unaddressed question, however, is precisely what is meant by socialist consciousness and how it is to be achieved.

Steve Coleman, quoting an author in the Socialist Standard, puts his finger on it (see epigraph above). Socialist consciousness is a “process of complete mental reconstruction”, one where years (indeed millennia) of “thoroughly impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour” are decisively overcome. Socialists must, as Coleman rightly says, “think very carefully” about what all this might mean. In his own essay, Coleman makes the observation and lets the thinking stop there. He doesn’t tell us what socialist consciousness is or how it is to be achieved beyond stating that it is a matter of “understanding” and “desire”, before going on to imply that the task is mostly one of propaganda and education and political organisation. This is perhaps necessary but surely inadequate, as we shall explore below.

Socialism really is impossible
One way of thinking about this is to imagine, for the sake of argument, that “socialist consciousness”, whatever it may be, really is not possible under capitalism, as the Leninists insist. The logical conclusion, if this were so, is that socialism would be impossible too. Grasping this point will help us understand and sympathise with every right-wing and common-sensical objection to socialism we’ve ever heard. To give just the most obvious examples, human nature, as it manifests in capitalist societies, clearly does make socialism an unlikely proposition. Greed and violence really does make stateless abundance and free access improbable ways of organising economies. Revolutions really must end in the establishment of new tyrannies. A party taking power in the name of the workers really would end up having to impose a dictatorship. The SPGB links arms with socialism’s opponents on every point. Having linked arms with our new anti-socialist friends, perhaps we might sit down to consider together what “socialist consciousness” might be, ie, what kind of inner transformation might turn socialism from a “nice idea” into a real practical possibility.

It’s not what you think it is
To the knowledge of this writer, very little has been written, either within or without the party, on what socialist consciousness might mean. A more common conception among Marxists generally is the related idea of “class consciousness”. But by this seems to be meant little more than knowledge or awareness that one is part of a social class. We must all surely know of people who have such awareness, but are nevertheless not socialists. Indeed, there’s no obvious reason why such a class-conscious person might not also be a Tory, depending on their political views and upbringing, precise position in class hierarchies, and so on. Class consciousness is clearly not necessarily much help to us.

Is it, then, a matter of “understanding” or “desire”, as Coleman puts it? The way to see that it is not is to conduct a scientific experiment of our own. Think of a person you know who lays claim to a good understanding of socialist issues – perhaps they’ve read every word of Marx and Engels and Morris and so on – and who has a burning desire for socialism. Now closely watch that person as they conduct themselves in social life. Do they, to use Coleman’s words again, demonstrate by their actions that they have overcome, lock, stock and barrel, impregnated prejudices and attitudes towards social behaviour? Have they achieved a “complete mental reconstruction”? Have they achieved “the necessary consciousness for social liberation”?

Whether the person you are observing is yourself or your worst enemy doesn’t in the end matter, and in neither case is moral judgement or censure implied. If your subject is the worst arsehole and hypocrite imaginable, he or she is only sharing in the general social madness, and is no doubt nevertheless very nice indeed to their dog. But while we refrain from judging, let us nevertheless continue to observe closely and carefully. Let us see what is there, and think about the implications.

You might see that socialist “understanding” and “desire” has, if anything, made us worse. Our superior understanding alienates us from our fellow workers, and we get frustrated and angry that they can’t see as we do. Our desire for socialism burns to anger at the social injustices we must live with every day, and we turn into monsters of negativity and aggression. Frustration, anger, pride in superior knowledge, alienation from our fellow man, negativity, aggression – are these the characteristics of the “necessary consciousness for social liberation”? Surely not.

If socialist consciousness isn’t then what we think it is or what we desire, what is it? What I would like to suggest is that socialist consciousness is what arises spontaneously and without volition from a total awareness of our situation.

That starts with us as individuals – the exercise I suggested above needs to be continued. Proceed carefully and slowly, for such scientific observation demands great skill and subtlety and patience. Watch and appreciate every aspect of your own consciousness and experience – the thinking and the emotions, and how they feed each other; your desire to be proved right; to do the right thing… and get applause for it; the aggression and irritability; the constant search for gratification and entertainment; your childishness when you don’t get your own way in even the slightest degree; your shyness and desire to assert yourself; your pride in achievement; your desire to go out and change the world, and to curl up in a darkened room and forget the whole thing.

That’s the internal aspect. We hardly need to go into the external aspects when all we have to do is switch on the news. But make this too part of your scientific experiment, your awareness of the world we live in – the world we help to create and sustain everyday by our thoughts and our actions. The wars. The violence. The greed. The stupidity. The ecological destruction. The ugliness. The pettiness. The class struggle.

The SPGB is quite right to insist, against other Marxists, than socialist consciousness does not arise spontaneously out of the class struggle, but rather out of our consciousness of and reflection on the total situation we find ourselves in. This then is our answer to the question in the title. Out of the total awareness of our total situation arises a consciousness adequate to that situation – a direct and immediate consequence of that awareness is that we grow up and become and act as responsible adults in this crazy and immature world.

Those who were hoping for an intellectually satisfying answer to the question might be very disappointed by this anti-climax. But the truth is that the whole question of consciousness is a very tricky one scientifically and philosophically. As a practical matter, however, we can just accept the unsatisfactoriness of it. We may not quite be able to grasp consciousness – let alone socialist consciousness – scientifically or intellectually, but consciousness is the one thing we have good access to and a measure of control over from the inside. So let’s start with what we have – the common inheritance of all humanity – and begin our study of ourselves, from the inside, to see whether the answer to the possibility of socialism doesn’t lie within.

Although we don’t really know what socialist consciousness is, nevertheless “by their fruits ye shall know them”. We know it when we see it. We know it by its signs – friendliness, kindliness, patience, compassion, service, work freely given without expectation of reward, moderation, open mindedness, good heartedness, forgiveness, altruism, sharing, generosity. When socialist consciousness comes into this world, then so too inevitably does socialism.–Stuart

The real prophet of the 20th century was not Marx…

… it was Dostoevsky. Albert Camus’ provocative statement provides the backdrop as to why socialists should be interested in this most original of writers. In 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested and sentenced to death for his involvement with a group of Russian utopian socialists. His death sentence was commuted to penal servitude in Siberia, an experience that shook Dostoyevsky to his foundations and resulted in a political shift to the right with a revitalised faith in Christ.

However, despite his subsequent reputation as an arch reactionary, Dostoyevsky’s conservatism was far more nuanced than is commonly understood. Indeed, socialists should be able to identify with his penetrating psychological insights into the mindset of Russian ‘nihilism’, and the irrationality of humankind more generally.

Novels such as ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘The Possessed’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, won him monumental praise from the likes of Nietzsche, Freud and Albert Einstein. For some, he was the ‘prophet’ of what became the ‘nightmare’ of the Russian Revolution.

But did Dostoyevsky offer any real alternative, and what is his relevance for us today? Negative Capability blogger Dave explores these issue in his excellent talk, given to the comrades of a party we were both once members of. Please do have a listen.